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American Routes Shortcuts: Don Bryant

Don Bryant.jpeg
Don Bryant

Don Bryant was the fifth of ten children, grew up listening to his father’s gospel group, and started singing in church at age five. Don began harmonizing with his family and neighbors and went on to form the Four Kings with his brothers singing on Dick “Cane” Cole’s popular WLOK radio show. The group joined up with Willie Mitchell’s band; Don Bryant was lead singer. Bryant later pursued a solo career, but mostly focused on writing material for other artists at Hi Records and continued singing in church. Don returned to singing secular music in his 70s after an invitation from Memphis soul band the Bo-Keys. He released an album in 2017, called Don’t Give Up on Love, his first secular album in 48 years. Don’s latest record, You Make Me Feel, came out in 2020.

Don Bryant: The music hit me, I guess, it was at a very young age. Listening to my daddy and his gospel group singing, the Four Stars of Harmony, that was the name. They used to rehearse at the house, and we would all sit around listening to them harmonize, you know. I just enjoyed it, and I tried to be there as much as I could to listen to it. I don’t know, maybe my mind was made up then because I never did get away from it, you know, as I continued to grow old, I got closer and closer to music, trying to imitate some of the sounds that they were doing. A lot of times I’d be by myself just walking and singing and trying to hit some of the tones and the notes that I heard my father and his group do, you know. When I was in grammar school, say maybe about 7th or 8th grade, they would have talent shows and different things in the school, and I would always try to be part of it, and that just kept building and building and building, and I just didn’t ever stop.

Nick Spitzer: Well you did end up harmonizing with your brothers, you called yourselves the Four Kings, and you were on Dick “Cane” Cole’s popular show on WLOK. Tell me a little about how the Four Kings and you end up with Willie Mitchell.

DB: Well you know we had been singing, you know, maybe two, three of my other brothers would get together, and we’d try to harmonize. We finally got a group together that we had four individuals that wanted to really do it, and we kind of stuck together. I think Willie, he heard the group, and we talked, and he wanted to see if we would be interested in working with his band. We went in and auditioned for him, and he said, “Okay, I’ll give you a try.” And it lasted pretty good but I mean eventually, the different ones in the group, they had their differences and couldn’t get along, and this one started leaving and that one started leaving and what have you, you know. I went to Willie and asked if I could try doing it solo. And he gave me that opportunity to work as a soloist, and it worked out pretty good, you know.

NS: Well fifty years later, you’re continuing to make music, and I was listening to the 2020 record, You Make Me Feel, and you’ve got this song, “Your Love Is to Blame.” You’re saying love is to blame but love is a pretty positive force there.

DB: It is. It’s a great thing, man, and so many people are caught up in it and having different problems and what have you. I be trying to reach those problems that they may be having because I know I went through a lot of them myself. You know I would always try to approach it in a way where it’s gonna be more than just four, five people going through these changes. It’s gonna be some of everybody going through these changes, you know.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.